How to Spend a Perfect Weekend in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is a perfect weekend getaway. Lots to do and see, various neighbourhoods to explore each with their own character, foodie hotspots ranging from the sweetest cakes to healthy choices to indulging Scottish fare, and yet, the city is small enough to not feel overwhelmed by it. Last July I spent a weekend in Edinburgh with Safestay Hostels, and since this was far from my first trip to the Scottish capital, I thought it would be tricky to fill my days with activities I hadn’t tried and places I hadn’t seen yet. I’ll tell you this much: Edinburgh has more to offer than I ever imagined!
Edinburgh was the last stop on my tour around with UK with Safestay Hostels and also the final stop on the convenient Virgin Trains East Coast route from London. Arriving here by train (whether from across the Central Belt in Glasgow, or from down south in England) is the best way to start your weekend in Edinburgh, because the train station Waverley is located in the city centre between the Old Town in the south and New Town in the north.
I arrived by train from York, which is a mere 2.5 hours away. From Glasgow it is even less – just 45 minutes on the fastest route! From Waverley I made my way up the hill through the Old Town. You could either walk up Cockburn Street and stop at a vintage shop to stock up on the local fashion OR climb the stairs of Fleshmarket Close which brings you past Edinburgh smallest pub, the Halfway House. Whichever way you go, you will inevitably cross Edinburgh’s central High Street, the Royal Mile.
As my hostel was located only 5 minutes down the hill on the other side, I quickly dropped off my bags before returning to the Royal Mile to explore the little shops and watch the bustling crowds of people shuffling up and down to and from the castle.
Rabbie’s City Tour, 6pm
I’m not usually a big fan of bus city tours, but since June this year there is a new player in town, so I was happy to give it a try. Rabbie’s, which is one of Scotland’s leading tour companies and who I have made my first experience with on a rainy day in January, have started to offer an Edinburgh City Tour. The tour comes with Rabbie’s usual promise of providing high-quality small group tours, which is why instead of the usual double decker city bus I got aboard a smallish van with 16 seats and a convertible glass food. Say what?! Yes, with Rabbie’s I got to tour Edinburgh in a convertible feeling the wind in my hair and the sun on my nose.
For more details and my full review of this tour head over here.
Dinner at Bar 50, 7.30pm
After checking into my private room at Safestay Edinburgh and brushing the knots out of my hair (damn you, convertible!), I headed down the stairs to have a cheap, but delicious dinner at the hostel’s signature Bar 50. The food is the usual bar grub, pizzas, burgers, fries etc., but tastes really nice and comes with an unbeatable price tag. Like at the hostel, the people frequenting Bar 50 is a mix of young internationals, local students and mature travellers who are looking for a bargain in the city centre.
If you want it more fancy, step it up a notch – literally, as the restaurant lies back up the hill – and check out Civerinos, a small but deadly Italian place on Hunter Square. I went here a few months ago and stuffed my face with a white pizza with pears and walnuts on it!
Drinks in Old Town, 9pm
Safestay Edinburgh is in a great location also because it’s close to some if Edinburgh’s hottest nightlife spots. Whether you fancy a pint in pub on Grassmarket (quite touristy), a drink at a trendy place like Ox 184 (awesome cocktails!) or clubbing at Cabaret Voltaire, everything is just a stone’s throw away. Oh, and for live music head to Whistlebinkies or the Jazz Bar.
The best hangover cure always starts with a rich and nutritious breakfast, and you will be happy to hear that Safestay Edinburgh dishes up a full Scottish breakfast at Bar 50 every day. An early rise is advisable though because the queues can get quite tedious (especially during the summer and in the weekends).
Scotch Whisky Experience, 10am
If you’re head and nose can take it, I recommend to start your day with a Silver Tour at the Scotch Whisky Experience. Although visiting an actually distillery offers you a much closer look into how a specific whisky is distilled, I learnt the most about Scottish single malt at the Scotch Whisky Experience. If you only have a weekend in Edinburgh, and not time to spare to venture to a distillery in the Highlands, this is a great place to learn more.
The main reason for that is that only here you get an overview of the different whisky regions in Scotland, the ways they distill and produce, and the different tastes they develop. I always thought I didn’t like whisky at all, but now I know that’s just because I’d never been to a Speyside distillery before. The tour take around 50 minutes and includes a whisky tasting in the breathtaking collections room, surrounded by hundreds of whisky bottles.
Scotch Whisky Experience, Silver Tour: £14.50
From the Scotch Whisky Experience at the Royal Mile I made my way down to the Grassmarket, one of Edinburgh’s prime locations for vintage shopping during the day, and pub crawling at night. Considering the time, I went for the former and explored what the vintage shops had to offer. My favourite is definitely W. Armstrong & Sons at the top of Grassmarket with all its vintage fashion and accessories, but also traditional Scottish dress and costumes. A bit more fancy is the vintage boutique Herman Brown at the other end of Grassmarket, on West Port.
Lunch at Hula Juice Bar, 12.30pm
I needed another energy boost to keep me going and found the ideal place at Hula Juice Bar, Edinburgh’s first smoothie bar. I indulged in an Acai bowl with fresh and dried fruit, toasted coconut flakes and all other sorts of superfoods sprinkled on top of icy cold red berry slush. After that I had a slice of crumble cake, a matcha latte and a little nap – just kidding!
Royal Yacht Britannia, 1pm
As this was not my first weekend in Edinburgh I had already seen most of Edinburgh’s attractions, like the Castle, the National Museum of Scotland and the museum of optical illusions, Camera Obscura. I wanted to check out a museum that had never even occurred to me: the Royal Yacht Britannia. I’m not the biggest fan of the monarchy, so the thought of visiting a boat that was custom built to sail a rich family around the world for visits to their colony and/or honeymoons and birthday parties, was not super appealing.
And yet, setting foot on such an extravagant yacht was really rather impressive. I even accepted the audioguide (something I usually never do) and was completely captured by it for over 2 hours! Time flew by as I learnt about the business of the Royals on board, but also about the crew and their various tasks. I muttered to myself when I heard that the crew wasn’t allowed to look at the Royal passengers should they accidentally bump into them, and marvelled at the collection of stickers and music cassettes in the crew cabins. Whether you’re in favour of the monarchy or not, this is a rather unique experience and the views over the Port of Leith are not shabby either!
Royal Yacht Britannia, Port of Leith, £15 (includes audio guide)
Discovering Leith, 3pm
Spend the rest of the day exploring Leith, one of Edinburgh’s coolest neighourhoods – very up-and-coming, with artists and students now populating the streets that used to house the workers of Edinburgh’s main harbour, the Port of Leith. These days there are new cafes, bars and shops popping up every month, so that there is a lot to do and see.
I took it easy and after a stroll along the Water of Leith found myself with a pint of local ale on the sunny terrace of Teuchters Landing, an old-fashioned pup with a floating terrace overlooking the historical buildings by the water.
For dinner check out the 15th century pub King’s Wark dishing up slightly fancier versions of traditional Scottish pub grub. If you haven’t tried it yet, this is the place to order a classic Haggis supper served with needs & tatties (turnip and potatoes mash).
To save some pennies you could have your breakfast at Bar 50 again, or if you want to splurge on eating out, check out one of Edinburgh’s hottest brunch locations: The City Cafe on Blair Street. Prepare to queue up for a table as this is a really popular place.
Royal Botanical Gardens, 11am
After Saturday’s busy schedule take it easy on your last morning in the city. I initially planned to finally hike up Arthur’s Seat – which I still haven’t done after three years in Scotland and numerous visits to Edinburgh – but the weather had other plans for me. I could have pulled a classic museum day and checked out the latest exhibitions at the National Museum of Scotland, but I did not want to drop the idea of spending the day surrounded by nature.
A visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens was the perfect solution – an excellent indoor activity, if you’re happy to pay a few pounds to enter the glass houses, and yet the perfect green boost after a weekend in the busy city centre. If I had to chose a favourite place in Edinburgh, it would probably be right here in the jungle of the greenhouses, far away from the crowds of tourists in the Old and New Town!
Royal Botanical Gardens, free access to the gardens, £5.50 Glasshouse Admission
Lunch at Edinburgh Larder, 1pm
Back in the city centre it is time for your final meal of your weekend in Edinburgh, and where would be more suitable than the Edinburgh Larder. This little cafe just off the Royal Mile is the best place to taste locally sourced and seasonal food, or homemade cakes with a cup or Artisan Roast coffee, which is roasted in Edinburgh. The perfect way to enjoy a last taste of Edinburgh.
Sadly, the time has come for you to pick up your bags and make your way back to the train station (or airport). So long for now, Edinburgh!
Where to Stay
Edinburgh boasts a variety of hotels, but from my experience they are hardly worth the soaring prices (unless you splurge on a 5-star hotel maybe) because they are often located in old townhouses with very little space. I have spent nights in hotels where standard double rooms sell for over £150 a night, but are as little as a shoe box.
The hostel Safestay Edinburgh (formally Smart City Hostel) on the other hand is great value for money. If you’re on a budget you can stay in one of their dorms, or spend a bit more for a private en-suite room. The location is super central – ideal for sightseeing during the day and partying at night. To and from the train station it is only a 15 minute walk and there is a locked luggage room which is available for free, which makes exploring on the day that you’re arriving or leaving even easier.
As mentioned above the hostel has its own cozy bar and restaurant, Bar 50 which is a staple in the local student life and always busy with visitors and locals alike. WiFi is free and fast, and the staff is always happy to help with directions or recommendations for food, transport or things to do.
Safestay Edinburgh, Blackfriars Street, Dorm bed from £11, Private room from £39
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* I actually arrived on a Tuesday early afternoon and left again on the evening of Wednesday.
All photos by Kathi Kamleitner (except stated otherwise).